2014 – A Year of Birding Locally


This page has been written primarily for my own benefit, so that I can look back in years to come and marvel – but that also means that it will be my longest posting of the year. Bird-nerds can read on, safe in the knowledge that this is about birds (mostly) and just may be interesting to them while other friends can skip the words and simply admire the photographs.

I suggest that you might care to read this page in conjunction with https://sparroworks.ca/wildlifing/listing/2014-lists/ where I have placed a list of the year’s birds and the dates they were first seen – that is the page for really birdy birders.

Thirty years ago (1984) I was birding in Shetland - with some truly cheap binoculars (this photo is inserted with the sole intention of catching your attention for the interesting stuff that follows)
Thirty years ago (1984) I was birding in Shetland – with some truly cheap binoculars (this photo is inserted with the sole intention of catching your attention for the interesting stuff that follows)

As a fairly new retiree with time to spare, I had set out at the start of the year with every intention of doing a very green big year. In other words, I would attempt to be a zero-carbon-emitting birder and count only the bird species seen during the year that were accessible from home by self-powered means such as walking or cycling. Good intentions, you will agree, and as the author of the popular book entitled Green Birding (available in both printed or e-book format from Amazon at http://goo.gl/GdXvFA ) I should have done nothing else, BUT …

… BUT, stuff got in the way. “Stuff happens” as they say but it’s far too tedious to explain it all here. Just accept, as I have, that, in the words of immortal Rabbie Burns “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, for promis’d joy”. I did establish the framework of what should turn out to be a tolerably successful green birding route in future years but it wasn’t as thoroughly patrolled by me as it would have been had not enthusiasm for other local patches led me astray. I also have to admit that on more than one occasion I took my eyes off the birds and paused to admire a flower or a butterfly and an unexpectedly big chunk of the summer was taken up as a member of the volunteer team surveying our town for ash trees as the first stage of developing a control programme for the just-arriving and tree-killing emerald ash borer beetle. Such is the life of a Wildlifer who is not in gainful employment.

For all that, I was pretty consistent with my intention to bird almost exclusively locally and to try to minimise my environmental impact. I chose to concentrate on patch birding (aka patchworking) and that is what I am writing about today. To leaven the weight of this text, I will interpose a few photographs to ensure that you stay with me to the end.

Thus, 2014 turned out to be a year of Patchwork Big-Yearing. Undoubtedly I missed some good birds by being in the wrong place at the wrong time (such as in bed at dawn) and I know there were some birds close to my self-imposed geographic boundaries that I chose not to go after in order to single-handedly save the planet for over-heating, but for all that is has been an interesting exercise and one that I plan to repeat in 2015. A good few of these birds would not have been recorded had I, a one-eyed partially deaf birder, not been accompanied by J, my sharp-eyed and eared spotter. Much of what follows is a joint enterprise.

Where is my patch? You ask, as you should, and I will try to explain. In actuality, I have a number of overlapping patches and birding routes. Let’s look at them in turn. All species counts referred to are taken from my records on eBird which is where I keep my lists these days and which is easy to work with. There are perhaps a small number of bird sightings on my computer in various spreadsheets etc that have not made it to eBird, but if so then they are lost to this count and I am not going to worry about them; I’m not doing this for the competition. I have moved all my world sightings, such as there are, to eBird now and almost given up on using the traditional birding database program on my computer at home. There is little point in duplication.

The territories/patches that I have kept records for are the following – all of them very local to where we live.

• My Green Birding Routes
• My Birding/Wildlife Circle
• The Garden
• The Morgan Arboretum/MBO
• The West-Island-Plus Territory

So what happened on each of these? Read on …

(a) My Green-Birding Routes

My historic life-list for this green route is 133 species out of which 81 species were recorded during 2014 (61%).

The lakeshore within ten minutes walking of home - an often visited part of the green route
The lakeshore within ten minutes walking of home – an often visited part of the green route

This could, indeed should, have been better, but I count it as quite reasonable under the circumstances – especially allowing for the relatively low level of effort.

This is where I was supposed to have been concentrating all year. In essence it comprises those places that I have walked to, on or through during the year with occasional outings by cycle. All pretty local and all starting from home in Baie d’Urfé, taking me around the town, off to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and parts of Senneville to the west and across the Macdonald campus of McGill U and various places in between. At the centre of it is our garden which I describe in more detail below. It is a mixture of quite leafy suburban roads and sections of the lakeshore plus the McGill farm fields south of the TransCanada highway, quite an intensively farmed and featureless agricultural property though it is surprising what turns up there. These are perpetual routes that I will continue to work in 2015. The area was intended to have included the Morgan Arboretum but I failed to keep consistently separate records of visits taken when I used the car to travel the 4km between home and its entry and those on which I walked/cycled; thus I am reporting my “arbo” birds elsewhere, some green and some rather less so.

(b) The Birding Circle

Historic: 172 species
2014: 121 species (70%)

The Birding (or Wildlife) Circle concept is a handy one that grew out of a desire to standardise green birding protocols – I can’t say many people have taken it up, perhaps as I have not publicized the concept very widely, but I like the idea and will stick with it. You can read all about it the reason for creating the circle concept elsewhere on this website – see https://sparroworks.ca/wildlifing/my-patch/sample-page. Essentially it is an 8km radius circle centred on home and all reachable by walking or cycling – when the spirit is willing.

This has been rather successful and thrown up some good birds during the year – ending with a solitary Snow Goose just before the river froze over that was apparently travelling with a large group of Canada Geese. It should have gone south long before with the rest of its kind … but it seemed happy enough sitting out on the edge of the slowly forming ice.


(c) The Morgan Arboretum/MBO

Historic: 134 species (eBird recorded checklist = 180 species, in reality perhaps nearer 200)
2014: 99 species (74%)

Great Horned Owl in the arboretum
Great Horned Owl in the arboretum

In as much as I do have a real, defined, regularly and reasonably intensively birded patch in the true and traditional sense of the word, I would say that the Morgan Arboretum is it and has been so for a good few years. I include on my arboretum list the birds seen on a small number of visits to the immediately adjacent McGill Bird Observatory as the the location and habitats of the two are entirely contiguous and there is free passage of birds between the two locations.

The arboretum is a potentially wonderful place to see birds and other wildlife that is very close to home. I first visited it three days after arriving in Canada back in 1998 and have been there probably at least once a week ever since. I am a director of the charity that manages part of its affairs and have been president of the Friends of the Morgan Arboretum so I have a pretty good knowledge of the place and of where to find birds – I even have a “Where to find birds in the Arboretum” guide book that you can download free here. For all that I am frustrated by the fact that I know the birding could be so much better if only McGill would stop allowing members to walk their dogs there off-leash, but that isn’t going to happen. It is undoubtedly the best birding in the west island, but it could be so much better.

I recorded 20 warbler species there during the year and 8 species of sparrows. Of the two I get more excited by the sparrows but everyone wants to know about warblers … the world divides between those who like flashy birds and those who have a hankering for LBJs. I find myself in the latter.


(d) The Garden

Historic: 107 species
2014: 59 species (55%)
Note, there were actually a few more birds in the garden during the year but either J saw them when I was not around or else I saw them too but overlooked recording them on eBird (probably seen while my mind was on other jobs and I forgot). These additional species came to an embarrassing 11 making a joint garden list of 70 species (65%). I shall try harder in 2015.

Warblers gathering at the garden pool
Warblers gathering at the garden pool

Self-explanatory as far as location is concerned. An area of 15,000 sq.ft that we try to manage in such a way that it encourages wildlife. It is situated on a suburban road that limits its possibilities a bit, though not by much. You just have to keep looking.

The garden has plenty of mature trees and shrubs and the grass is kept longish so we do attract a good number of birds each year. Our star means of getting birds to visit us is, without a doubt, the garden pond and its attendant small waterfall. It seems that very few birds, especially during migration, can resist the opportunity to drop by and splash about a bit.

We had visits from all the usual birds that you might expect including 16 species of warblers and six of sparrows plus a Carolina Wren, five species of woodpeckers (though not the Red-bellied which we thought might become a regular after several visits in the two preceding years) and smart and reliable Great-crested Flycatcher. Over the years we have seen 22 warbler species out of a theoretically possible 32 … yet people say they never see anything but a few “sparrows” in their gardens. They just can’t be trying.

The 16 warblers listed this year were the following. The dates given are when each was first observed in the garden. By far the majority were seen in or around the small waterfall and its header pool at one end of the garden pond – a true bird magnet. With the exception of the American Redstart and the brief late summer drop-in of a Canada Warbler, they all turned up first in the second half of May between the 11th and the 28th; migration time.

Tennessee Warbler (28 May), Nashville Warbler (12 May), American Redstart (31 July), Cape May Warbler (11 May), Northern Parula (12 May), Magnolia Warbler (28 May), Bay-breasted Warbler (11 May), Blackburnian Warbler (12 May), Yellow Warbler (11 May), Chestnut-sided Warbler (28 May), Blackpoll Warbler (28 May), Palm Warbler (14 May), Yellow-rumped Warbler (05 May), Black-throated Green Warbler (06 May), Canada Warbler (21 Aug), Wilson’s Warbler (28 May)

Birding from behind the dining-room window in winter and the deck in summer, alcohol in one hand and binoculars in the other, is highly recommended.


(e) “West Island Plus” (WIP)

Historic: 194 species
2014: 137 species (71%)

Red-necked Grebe - a considerable rarity hereabouts
Red-necked Grebe – a considerable rarity hereabouts

This is the biggie and includes all the above mini-patches. It is a larger area than I had originally intended to concentrate on and most certainly requires a vehicle to reach some of its further corners, if only because getting off the island of Montreal without recourse to the internal combustion engine is only possible via the Gallipeau Bridge that leads to Ile Perrot. I have (self) defined my West-Island-Plus birding territory (really, it’s a bit large to call a patch) as being pretty well anywhere west of Blvd-St-Jean that is within a 20 minute journey of home. By a squeak and if I do not get snarled in traffic it just about manages to include our Hudson Christmas Bird Count route … “well, how very convenient” I hear you say and to which I respond that “life has its compensations” and also “I make the rules around here”. Life, in fact, is full of compromises. The list of birds seen this year that I have on a related page is actually the WIP List.

There were plenty of Snowy Owls at the beginning of the year and a goodly few have shown up again at the end. It;s impossible to see too many but after the first twenty or so you do slow down a bit and save them for another day.

Always hard to pick a “bird of the year” but the Red-necked Grebe that I found on the south side of Ile-Perrot is certainly a contender.


(f) Elsewhere

The Ouse Washes reserve in Cambridgeshire, England.
The Ouse Washes reserve in Cambridgeshire, England.

One travels elsewhere on the planet, not always from choice and not necessarily specifically for birding purposes but habit makes it hard not to make a note of the birds that one happens to see. This year included a couple of “duty” trips to England, on one of which, in April, we managed a day at the wonderful Ouse Washes bird reserve and ended by clocking up a nice, round 50 species of Euro-birds during the week. Obviously, these were about as non-green as they could be … well, as they were really incidental sightings they were greener than they would have been had we flown the Atlantic in order to “twitch” something really unusual (some people do do that) but here I will merely note them in passing.

Quite a bit of birding has also been enjoyed at the Alfred Kelly Nature Reserve an hour north of Montreal and at the Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary down near the US border.


And what is planned for 2015?

I decided to put this short section in to give me a challenge – by laying it out before you, my public, I will need to come up with solid excuses if I miss any targets.

Well, something would be rather strange should 2015 not have plenty of local birding in it. I stress local as I will be out and about mostly around the areas described above … but it won’t be quite as actively birded simply because building works around our house in the past couple of months have left half the garden looking like the battlefields of the Somme and so I have some heavy reparative landscaping work ahead of me this spring and summer. But that’s OK, gardening is very enjoyable and unless we are using heavy machinery the birds still turn up.

Only one serious off-patch birding trip is planned for the year ahead. We are away for a couple of weeks guided wildlifing in Iceland and have expectations of coming back with some handy ticks and some exciting photographs. Friends keep telling us that we “really should” head south and bird Central America and the like. They are excited about tropical birds and mean well … perhaps one day we will go that direction if we can still afford it, but hot and steamy jungles are not really our thing. We enjoy wide open northern hills and seashores with cold winds and long distances to stare into hoping for something rare and impressive to fly out from behind a crag or out of a cloud. Children of the North are we. I will report back on that trip this time next year.


And now, you have been patient long enough. Here are the (rest of the) photographs:

Most of my photos are record shots rather than candidates for the National Geographic … here are just a few of the ones I have taken during 2014 that I rather think you will enjoy (and which I will certainly take pleasure from looking back on in my dotage – if I ever reach it).

There are 104 randomly shown photographs in this slideshow – a few have captions but I reckoned most people who have read this far can work out what they are looking at for themselves. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for sticking with me to the end.


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